India’s Water Crisis: Focus On Rice Cultivation Deepens Water Crisis Across Northern States

In states like Haryana and Punjab, focus on procurement of rice and wheat deepens groundwater crisis.

A picture of paddy fields in the Ballah village of Haryana. Image Courtesy: Parth MN
A picture of paddy fields in the Ballah village of Haryana. Image Courtesy: Parth MN

Sandeep Singh Roha narrates the story in a way that brings an iconic scene from the movie Sholay to mind.

Six people had climbed a water tank nearly 100 feet high. It was encircled by villagers gathered in concern and solidarity alike. Those atop the tank refused to come down until they had their way. Unlike the movie, the agitation here was not trivial. A section of farmers from the region had used this means to catch the attention of the state government of Haryana.

“The government did not buy the sunflower harvest from 1,300 farmers as promised... We had to do something out of the ordinary to get their attention,” said Roha, a farm activist based in the village of Ballah in Haryana’s Karnal district—about three hours from Delhi.

Therefore, in the last week of July, Roha and five other colleagues parked themselves for five days and five nights on top of a water tank at a mandi in Shahabad—80 kilometers from Ballah. “It rained, the wind was blowing hard,” he says. “But we only came down after the district officer met us and agreed to our demands.”

India’s Water Crisis: Focus On Rice Cultivation Deepens Water Crisis Across Northern States

Selling their harvest for a decent return at the end of a season is among the biggest challenge for farmers.

For most crops, it is a complicated and tiresome process. “In the case of sunflower, the government procures only 7 quintals per acre,” says Roha. “But we harvest about 12 quintals on an acre. The rest, therefore, we have to sell in the market at Rs 2,000 below the minimum support price. With mustard too, there is an upper limit (on procurement).”

Farmers say the procurement process is swiftest in the case of rice which has been a dominant kharif crop in Haryana and Punjab for decades. And so, many of the farmers choose rice over other crops even though it requires far more water at a time when the country is facing a near crisis of water supply.

Sandeep Singh Roha, a farm activist based in the village of Ballah, Haryana in the fields speaking on the phone. Image Courtesy: Parth MN
Sandeep Singh Roha, a farm activist based in the village of Ballah, Haryana in the fields speaking on the phone. Image Courtesy: Parth MN
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Advantage Paddy

Over 30 percent of the government’s procurement across India consists of paddy and wheat. And Haryana and Punjab are two of its major suppliers.

According to the website of Food Corporation of India, out of the 381.84 lakh metric tonne of rice procured by the government in 2017-18, Punjab and Haryana contributed 118.33 and 39.92 LMTs of rice respectively, or over 40 percent. The following year, the government procured 439.73 LMTs of rice, of which 113.34 and 39.41 LMTs was from Punjab and Haryana respectively, or 28 percent.

The focus on procurement of these two crops influences cultivation choices in a significant way.

Ravinder Kajal, 41, who has five acres of farmland in Raipur Jattan village of Karnal district, says even after the government is done procuring rice, the market prices correspond with the government-set minimum support prices. “An acreage of paddy requires an investment of Rs 20,000,” he says. “A good season throws up around 25-28 quintals of harvest. At an MSP of Rs 1,835, we make around Rs 50,000. It is a profit of Rs 30,000 on an acre. It is our best shot of making money.”

Thus, lush green outfields of paddy spread out on both sides of the road while travelling through the tranquil villages of Haryana. Soaked in water, the crop bathes in sunrays beating down on an afternoon in the first week of August. Feet submerged in water, farmers work in their farmlands with worn out trousers folded up until their knees.

Agriculture expert Devender Sharma says that procurement policies, which create an assured market for paddy, skew cultivation patterns.

Common sense tells us that we should be cultivating crops which require less water in rainfed areas, says Sharma. “But what is happening is opposite of that.” Sharma cites the example of Punjab, where the government gave Rs 4,000 per acre for shifting from paddy to maize. “But nobody procures. So farmers did not opt for it.”

The result is that India ends up producing more rice than it consumers.

India is the largest exporter of rice in the world. For the three cropping years between 2015-2018, India’s rice exports have remained between 10-12 million tonnes. “Our export is basically our surplus,” says Sharma.
Paddy fields stretch out across Ballah, Haryana. Image Courtesy: Parth MN
Paddy fields stretch out across Ballah, Haryana. Image Courtesy: Parth MN

Depleting Ground Water

This cultivation of paddy takes a huge toll on groundwater recharge, for the crop is a water guzzler. More than 5,000 litres of water goes into producing one kilo of rice. As such, the ramifications of the over-reliance on paddy intersects with the water crisis that India is currently grappling with.

The Central Ground Water Board assesses the underground water level every five years in each state. When the exercise transpired in Haryana in 2013, 64 of the 119 blocks in 21 districts were found to be ‘over-exploited’, or dark zones. A CNN-News 18 news report in July 2019, which claimed to have seen the latest, unpublished report from Haryana, said that 12 more dark zones had come up in the state. BloombergQuint could not independently verify this.

In Punjab, the CGWB warned in May this year that the state would turn into a desert in 25 years if the over-exploitation of groundwater continues unabated. The report had pegged the groundwater extraction in 2013 at 149 percent in Punjab, which has increased to 165 percent six years later.

To be able to extract groundwater, farmers have to install tubewells on their lands. And tubewells cost money.

Praveen Kumar, 48, a farmer with three acres in Ballah, says they have to spend Rs 5 lakhs on a tubewell. “Every farmer has installed one on his farmland by borrowing money,” he says. “Having a tubewell also helps farmers when they rent out their farmland to tenant farmers. The rent for a land without a tubewell is half the cost, and with rainfall getting erratic, we have to rely on groundwater to cultivate paddy.”

To be sure, the problem of depleting groundwater is not unique to Punjab or Haryana. It is happening across the country, even in regions where paddy is not cultivated. Water management is bad in every part of the country, says Sharma. “The issue of water guzzling crops is not limited to Punjab and Haryana. It is paddy in these two states. In Maharashtra and western UP, it is sugarcane. The answer lies in having a cropping pattern suitable to the water requirements of the region,” says Sharma.

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A Shift Over Time

Paddy was not always a traditional crop of Haryana and Punjab. Until the 1970s, farmers here cultivated millet, maize, pulses and oilseeds. During the 1970s and early 80s, India ushered in the green revolution to ensure food security in the country. It was during this period that the two states entered a cycle of paddy and wheat cultivation.

Water was not an issue back then and food security was a priority. So the governments of the two concerned states did not delve much into the sustainability of the groundwater resource. Kumar says his father had installed an elevated plank to keep the tubewell so it would not submerge in water after they pumped it out. “We did not even have to drill more than 20 feet to hit water,” he says. “Today, even if we go as deep as 100 feet, we rarely strike water.”

But rise in paddy cultivation was not regulated as well as it should have been.

Since its formation 50 years ago, Haryana’s paddy cultivation has seen a seven-fold hike from 1.92 lakh hectares to 14.22 lakh hectares. In Punjab too, 2.27 lakh hectares under paddy in 1960 are now 28.45 lakh hectares.

In Haryana, during the cropping season of 2017-18, the production of rice was 48.8 lakh tonnes, or 30 percent of the entire kharif production, which included oilseeds, food grains, sugarcane and cotton. But of all the food grains produced in the kharif season, the production of rice was 87 percent.

In Punjab, during the cropping season of 2018-19, the production of rice was 1.28 crore MT, which is 97 percent of the Kharif cereals and 57 percent of the total kharif production.

The issue has now become too large to ignore.

Having finally woken up to the crisis of depleting groundwater and the importance of preserving it, the Haryana government led by Manohar Lal Khattar is trying to dissuade farmers from persisting with paddy. The government is promoting the plantation of corn instead by providing seeds at 10 percent of the cost and an incentive of Rs 2,000. At a recently held press conference, the government claimed to have replaced corn with paddy on nearly 40,000 hectares of land in Haryana.

But it is unclear how successful the strategy will be.

BloombergQuint met with farmers that opted for the subsidy and planted corn instead of paddy. None of them plan to persist with it during the next cropping season.

Hukum Singh Rana, 70, regretfully meandering through his ruffled cornfield in Salvan village, says he made a blunder this season. “A group of Nilgai entered the farm and ruined the entire crop,” he says. “The Nilgai never attacks paddy. Further, paddy can sustain the erratic weather. One phase of torrential rain and the corn is finished. I will get back to paddy next season.”

Farmer Hukum Singh Rana sitting in the fields in Ballah Village in Haryana. Image Courtesy: Parth MN
Farmer Hukum Singh Rana sitting in the fields in Ballah Village in Haryana. Image Courtesy: Parth MN

It is not like the farmers do not care about the water scarcity in their state or the country. Drowning in debt, however, they are compelled to opt for the crop that is most likely to ensure their next meal.

Kumar sums up the paddy conundrum accurately. “Rice has now become a habit, or a routine for certain reasons,” he says. “Until we come across a viable alternative, we would continue to plant it.”

Former Agriculture Secretary Siraj Hussain says that policies need to be thought out better for any change in cultivation patterns to take hold. “Income of paddy farmers in these blocks can be protected by compensating them for the loss, if any, through a direct benefit transfer,” he suggests.

For decades the Centre used Punjab and Haryana for food security. Now that these states are in trouble due to falling water table, the Centre refuses to help them and they have been left to cope up with their problems.
Siraj Hussain, Former Agriculture Secretary
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This is the fourth part in a BloombergQuint series on India’s Water Crisis.